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Korea remains ‘Republic of Suicide’

July 03,2014
Korea chalked up another dubious distinction among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), topping the group’s suicide rate for 10 consecutive years - by a large measure in the case of the elderly.

An analysis of OECD Health Data 2014, issued yesterday by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, showed that 29.1 people out of 100,000 Koreans were committing suicide each year, which is 2.4 times the OECD average (12.1) and 17 times that of Turkey (1.7), which was lowest on the list.

Korea turned into the “Republic of Suicide” after the mid-1990s. When it was accepted into the OECD, the so-called Rich Nations Club, in 1996, Korea had a suicide rate of 12.7, lower than the OECD average of 15.5.

But the figure began to swell after the country was hit by the foreign exchange crisis starting in 1997. The rate rose to 15.6 in 1997 and jumped to 21.7 the following year.

Though the crisis subsided, its impact continues to linger in the suicide rate. The figure is mainly due to Koreans in their 40s and 50s who were forced out of their jobs and even onto the streets during the crisis. They are in the twilight years of their lives now, but the OECD report also states Korea’s poverty rate and suicide rate among the elderly are the highest among OECD members.

As of 2011, 81.9 people out of 100,000 aged 65 or older were committing suicide per year, which is much higher than 14.5 in the United States and 17.9 of Japan.

“Except for the suicide rate of the old, there isn’t much difference with other [OECD] countries in terms of type of suicides and age distribution,” said Lee Jung-gyu, head of the ministry’s mental health policy department. “Japan has a high suicide rate, too, but the figure gets lower among middle-aged and old people.”

The suicide rate decreased in 2012 to 29.1 from 33.3 in 2011, but experts say that might not be a sign of actual declines in suicides.

“The number of people who killed themselves by drinking agricultural pesticides went down by 18 percent in 2012, and I guess that’s because the Rural Development Administration and Welfare Ministry banned pesticides containing deadly poisons in 2011,” said Kang Yeong-ho, professor in the College of Medicine at Seoul National University. “[Authorities] must solve this problem of suicide among the elderly and get rid of the disgraceful title of ‘Republic of Suicide.’”

BY JANG JOO-YOUNG [bongmoon@joongang.co.kr]







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